The distance separating St. Ignatius High and FirstEnergy Stadium is only 2.2 miles when snaking through the streets of downtown Cleveland, a five-minute drive for anyone who knows the area. Brian Hoyer turned a simple trip around the corner into a nine-year odyssey before finding his way home.
Hoyer, in case you hadn’t heard, is the quarterback who came off the bench two weeks ago and led the Browns to consecutive victories over the Vikings and Bengals. He threw for 590 yards and five touchdowns in the two wins. He’ll be under center again Thursday night against the Bills.
Glossing over the facts would be trivializing his unlikely emergence and ignoring the impact he has made on his hometown. Hoyer has led a mini-revival in Cleveland, where the Browns are winning again and the Indians are back in the playoffs. For the first time in years, there’s hope in a way Buffalo can certainly understand.
“It’s exciting,” Hoyer said Tuesday during a conference call. “Obviously, when the Browns are doing well, this city is electric. It goes along with the Indians being in the playoffs. It’s a great sports town. The fans really enjoy all the teams. For us to be doing well, I’m sure it’s great, but it’s a long way in a long season.”
You may not know Hoyer, but Cleveland does. He was one of the best quarterbacks in Ohio during his days at St. Ignatius. He grew up a diehard Browns fan and was a season-ticket holder. He idolized Bernie Kosar and Eric Metcalf before the Browns packed up their equipment for Baltimore in 1995.
He was 10 years old at the time, too young to understand the reasons for the Browns’ departure. He didn’t bother watching pro football during their four-year absence, but it didn’t prevent him from fantasizing about playing in the NFL. Fourteen years after they returned, he returned as their starting quarterback.
“It’s a great story,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “We try not to get caught up in those things too much and focus on what we need to do to take care of our business. Certainly, a hometown kid playing quarterback is a neat thing. A couple of weeks ago, he made sure somebody else was handling all the ticket requests.”
The Hoyer Lift was precisely what Cleveland needed, a sturdy support system that could provide a strong back for a franchise that was buckling under its own weight. The Browns were already reeling after trading away 2012 first-round pick Trent Richardson when quarterback Brandon Weeden suffered a thumb injury.
Cleveland had little to lose but a few games when Chudzinski inserted Hoyer into the lineup. He figured to play a game or two and take his customary place on the bench, where he had spent nearly his entire career, when Weeden returned. The Browns would go back to losing and resume their journey to nowhere.
And now … this?
Hoyer has played like he did back at St. Ignatius. He threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Vikings. He backed up that performance with 269 yards and two scores Sunday in the upset over the Bengals. The Browns are 2-2 and relevant for the first time since 2007. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2002.
“It was a spark I was hoping for,” Chudzinski said.
The Bills intercepted Joe Flacco five times last week, so they shouldn’t be worried about Brian Hoyer throwing the ball all over the field Thursday. But after watching him manage the Browns’ offense against the Bengals and validate his first win with another, they’re bracing for another difficult road game.
Hard-core Buffalo fans will be pulling for the Bills come Thursday, but soft-hearted Buffalonians can appreciate what Hoyer has meant to Cleveland. In only two games, he breathed life back into the organization. The buzz that has been missing in Buffalo for years can be heard from the far side of Lake Erie.
“You can’t get too emotional one way or the other,” Hoyer said. “You treat it like a job. Obviously, deep down, it means more because it’s a team you grew up dreaming to play for.”
Hoyer may not have played at all if he had been taken high enough in the 2004 Major League Baseball draft. The big arm he showed while quarterbacking St. Ignatius also allowed him to throw a 94 mph heater. Several big league teams were interested in him as a pitcher, but they backed off when he signed to play football for Michigan State.
His career with the Spartans was largely forgettable. He completed 55 percent of his passes and threw for 29 touchdowns with 20 interceptions over his final two seasons. He was ignored in the NFL draft and signed a free-agent contract with New England, where he practiced with the scout team during the week and held a clipboard on Sundays.
Hoyer attempted 43 passes, completing one for a touchdown, in three seasons while sitting behind Tom Brady. He never saw the field during a season in Pittsburgh. He made one start – his only NFL start before this season – last season in Arizona and was unceremoniously shown the door.
Hometown boy or not, when the Cardinals aren’t interested, and the Browns are your fourth team in four years, and you’re the backup quarterback, your days are numbered. Now, it appears that he’s just getting started with his NFL career.
Weeden is back practicing and healthy enough to play, but Chudzinski can’t justify going back to him now. The Browns haven’t had three wins in their first five games since 2001, when Hoyer was a high school sophomore. They might as well take him for a ride and see if he can help them turn the corner.
“When it’s all said and done, whenever that may be, I’ll be able to look back on it,” Hoyer said. “For now, there’s no time to do that. I take this job very seriously. You don’t want to go out there and embarrass yourself. I could be playing in Arizona or New England, and it would still be just as important as it is now.”